(CNN)The reigning World Memory Champion, Alex Mullen, can memorize the order of a deck of cards in 17 seconds. But in some ways, he’s just as forgetful as the rest of us.
“I still forget plenty of basic things, like where I left my keys,” said Mullen, a medical student at the University of Mississippi.
Memory athletes such as Mullen can remember hundreds or even thousands of random words, numbers and images — a feat that may seem unbelievable to onlookers. But according to a study published today, anyone can train their brain using the same tricks as the world’s top competitors, reshaping their brain’s networks in the process.
For the study, researchers recruited 23 of the world’s top-ranked memory athletes and compared their brains with those of people who had never practiced memory techniques at all. Then, they put some of the newcomers through a memory training program and observed how their brains changed.
The more the rookies practiced the techniques, the more their brain scans started to resemble the memory athletes’ — and it took only six weeks.
“These really incredible memory feats … are not some form of inborn talent. It’s really just training,” said Martin Dresler, a neuroscientist at Radboud University in the Netherlands and the lead author of the study.
Mullen, a relative newcomer to the scene who was not involved in the study,was none too surprised. The top-ranked memory athlete said that, before he started training, “I felt like my memory wasn’t that great.
“You can do things that you probably don’t think you’re capable of,” he said.
Konrad, who also trained the newcomers to build their first memory palace, said that one finding in particular stood out to him as motivating: Everyone improved, regardless of where they started.
Even for the reigning world champion, Mullen has managed to surprise himself when he thought he had hit a wall or reached a personal limit. He has come a long way since his college years, when he was frustrated with forgetting things from one class to the next, he said.
“Before I learned about the techniques, I was an average Joe Schmoe,” Mullen said.
“Not to say that I’m not an average Joe Schmoe anymore,” he added.